When my mother celebrated her 50th birthday, I was 17. "This one hurts," she said. I wondered why she let age bother her. I vowed I never would.
But at 30 I began comparing myself with other 30-year-olds who had degrees, business cards, mortgages and families, while I possessed a high school education, worked as a secretary, rented an apartment, and faced an unhappy marriage for the second time. Other 30-somethings seemed halfway up their progressive career path, the summit in sight, and I had not yet located the trailhead.
My window of opportunity revealed its shrinking dimensions, measured by the minutes of one's lifetime. Why hadn't I noticed it before? I dusted off an old "someday" idea of becoming a hairdresser and enrolled in cosmetology school. It required me to run from my eight-hour office job to four hours of training, five days a week, for two years. I took great pride in my determination. I finished, passed my state board exam and began to apprentice with the pros on weekends, only to discover that I did not enjoy hairstyling much.
While attending a local beauty show in Denver, I came across a meticulous skin care demonstration. Esthetician. That sounded exotic. What a nice response to that annoying party question of "And what do you do?" I packed my few belongings after my second divorce and moved to California, the mecca of beauty.
I loved giving facials and customers loved me back, but I never mastered waxing. Upper lips clung to their dark, fuzzy threads; underarm hair tangled with sticky, honey-wax streaks; and bikini lines — well, let's just say that my bruised clients did not return.
When the recession hit in the 1980s, bookings waned and I called it quits. I was 35 — a hopeless failure, especially when I saw no recourse but to revisit the steadiness of secretarial work in order to support myself. Despite my career quandary, time did not stop. I took personality and career workshops, and read books like What Color Is Your Parachute?, but no clear answers came.
Out of desperation, I decided to try a night course at a junior college. The brochure indicated a "certificate" if one followed the business track. That seemed a good choice, as every job is part of a business. But an English course under the general education section also caught my eye. I loved English in high school. Unable to make a decision, I took both.
When the English instructor praised my essays and told me I was talented, his comment inspired me to pursue a writing degree. At almost 40, it seemed too late an ambition. That was when I met a 70-plus-year-old woman in the lounge while we both ordered coffee.
"What are you studying?" My eyes wandered from her armload of textbooks and binder to her Velcro-strapped white tennis shoes.
"Everything! I'm going after my associate's degree."
"Why not, right?" She winked at me.
My 40th birthday arrived in the midst of my junior college classes, where I plodded through, one or two classes at a time. No problem, for I had a plan and a solid goal. Forty was supposed to be a woman's prime, and I did feel superb, like grace ran through my bloodstream. I was where I was meant to be. Soon I transferred to a four-year institution, graduated with my bachelor's degree, followed that with a master's, and finished before my 48th birthday.
I dreaded seeing my 50th in front of me. I wanted to scramble backward and hover at 40 with its exuberant air of "arrival." Sure, I had my victories, but approaching 50 felt like a countdown to the graveyard. What did it matter that I was almost who I wanted to become when so few years were left?
The year that I was 50 came and left. I finished a novel, but it had flaws. Another year whizzed by. My writing progressed, but the rejections kept coming. I started a new novel.
My age attitude has shifted into acceptance. I have no choice, for no matter how much moisturizer I put on my face, my chin still sags and my eyes still crinkle. And while my southward breasts get held in place by a brassiere, it does nothing to bring back the adjective "perky."
At least I have good feet. They move me forward.
Katherine Heimann Brown has a master of fine arts degree in creative writing from Fairleigh Dickinson University and teaches at a junior college in Northern California.